In year two, test grades exceed expectations. Just four schools earn an F.
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000
Florida need not worry next year about failing schools springing up across the state, or vouchers sucking dollars out of the public schools.
Instead, Gov. Jeb Bush is going to have to come up with a lot more money to reward schools for academic improvement.
In just the second year of assigning A through F grades to Florida's public schools, the number of failing schools declined from 78 last year to four this year, A-rated schools increased from 203 to 551, and advocates and critics alike are beyond surprised.
Half of Florida's elementary schools improved at least a grade. Thirty-eight schools, including nine in the Tampa Bay area, leapfrogged three grade levels to A. Two made the improbable jump from F to A.
"I knew we would improve, but I never expected this," said Loretta Jenkins, principal of Fessenden Elementary School in Ocala, one of the F-to-A schools. Jenkins put off retirement until she and her school could shed the failing label, and now she is the center of attention again as one of the state's academic stars.
Are Florida's public schools really that much better?
At a news conference Wednesday, Bush and Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said yes. They applauded teachers and students and spoke of vindication for their much-maligned accountability system.
"The student performances reflected in these grades go beyond our highest expectations," Gallagher said. "Students, parents, educators and communities have responded to the challenge of accountability and made outstanding progress."
But not everyone is ready to declare Bush's A-Plus Plan a success.
"The only thing that's dramatically changed is the school grades," said Barbara Frye, spokeswoman for the Escambia County school district, home to the state's only two voucher-eligible schools last year. Escambia showed impressive gains and had nine schools shed the F grade.
"They've always been good schools," Frye said. "We knew it; now they have a label that says it. That's all that has changed."
Some critics see the grade fluctuations not as a sign of accountability working wonders, but as a warning.
"When you see a gigantic jump like that, it's just not consistent with the real world," said testing expert James Popham, professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles. "If it's a legitimate system, you expect to see incremental improvement over time, not wild jumps."
Bush, who called the improvements one of the highlights of his term as governor, had little patience for naysayers Wednesday.
"You know, I get frustrated (with) this focus on, "Yeah, but . . . .' The fact is, yeah, but they're learning," Bush said. Jim Watts of the Southern Regional Education Board said such improvement is possible; in fact it happened in North Carolina.
In a recent report, Watts discussed North Carolina's four-tiered ranking system, where 58 percent of the schools have achieved the highest ranking -- exemplary. He said the governor had to scramble to get more money to reward the exemplary schools, which sounds very much like Florida's new problem.
"In North Carolina, once people got focused and saw that it was important, you saw big improvement," Watts said.
Florida educators cited different recipes for their improvement. Loretta Jenkins, principal at Fessenden Elementary in Ocala, said though she doesn't agree entirely with Bush's accountability plan, it did push her and her staff to a new urgency.
"That F grade was a stigma no one wanted to wear," said Jenkins, who received congratulatory calls from Gallagher and Bush.
West Zephyrhills Elementary School principal Madonna Wise thinks she knows what worked -- and it wasn't Bush's plan.
Wise's school jumped from a C to an A in this, the first year it qualified for extra federal funding because the school has so many low-income children (63 percent qualify for the federal lunch program, an indicator of poverty.)
"That helped us lower class sizes," Wise said. "That makes such a big difference."
The grades are more than symbolic. There are real consequences. If a school earns an F for two years out of four the students would be eligible for a tax-funded voucher to go to private school.
No schools earned that second F this year; all 78 of last year's F schools showed improvement. Florida's voucher program, which was expected to become the largest in the nation, is on hold. With no new vouchers being awarded, only the 53 Pensacola kids who took Opportunity Scholarships last year will be eligible to attend private school through tax dollars next year. (It's unclear how many children will take advantage of a new law that allows special education children to take a voucher to private school if their needs are not being met in public school.)
Along with the consequences for bad grades, there are cash rewards for good grades.
Schools that earn an A or show marked improvement can qualify for extra money from the state -- $100 per student. Florida devoted $30-million to School Recognition last year and rewarded 323 schools. This year, with 551 A schools automatically qualifying, the $60-million set aside for next year probably won't be enough. Gallagher said it might take another $5-million to $10-million.
"Whatever it takes, we're going to get the money," Gallagher said.
Bush dismissed the chorus of educators who have acknowledged that improved test scores are largely the result of a laser-like focus on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Said Bush: "You can't teach to the test when you're learning to read. . . . These children are learning to read.
"We have talented teachers," he said. "We have talented administrators, and we've got great kids that will learn. And this proves it."
Those educators are going to have to ratchet up the curriculum in the near future if the state is to maintain these impressive school grades. The state standard for reading and writing scores is set to rise in 2002. And in light of the extraordinary increases in writing scores, state officials are talking about raising that bar as well.
After years of reform and sometimes confusing shifts in expectations, many teachers are taking it all in stride.
"All we're shooting for is improvement," said Zane McInroy, a fourth-grade teacher at Brentwood Elementary School in Pensacola, one of the two schools that went from an F to an A rating. "Now all we have to do is do it all over again."
Staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.